That Eddie Eliason won his first state archery championship ** at the age of 14 isn't surprising. The sport long has been known for producing prodigies. What's more remarkable is that Eliason, now 58, might have a chance to make his second Olympic team.
Coming off a year in which he won a gold medal in the Pan Am Games and was named the U.S. male archer of the year, Eliason is trying to go back to the Olympics for the first time since 1972. Asked why he failed in his past four bids, Eliason said, "I wasn't mature enough mentally."
Actually, equipment problems have been as much a cause as anything. A faulty bow hurt his chances in 1976 and a broken arrow did him in four years ago, when he finished fifth. He also barely missed qualifying in 1988, finishing one spot off the three-man team.
"I looked at it as maybe it wasn't meant to be," said Eliason, who finished fifth at the 1972 Games in Munich.
Eliason, who works for an equipment manufacturing company in Utah, has long taken that fatalistic approach to his sport -- and to life. As a Green Beret, Eliason saw half of his 12-man unit wiped out on its first night of combat in Vietnam.
"Even some of the guys who left there with me are still there mentally," Eliason said last week from Chula Vista, Calif., where he finished fifth in the first of three two-day qualifying events.
Eliason believes the key to his competitive longevity in archery is staying in shape and "staying in the present zone." He runs between 45 and 90 minutes four days a week, stretches up to an hour on off-days and also competes in ski-archery events in Utah.
One more thing: "I like to stay around positive people," he said.
It's inevitable for Eliason to stay with younger people, particularly in competition. Of the eight who made it through the Olympic pre-qualifying, three are 20 or younger. The only one close to his age is three-time national champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist Rick McKinney, 42.
"There's no question he's unique," said Bob Balink, executive director of the U.S. Archery Association. "But it sends kind of a mixed message. People might ask, 'Does it take 40 years to get on top?' "
Despite having "the heart of a 35-year-old" and more than three decades of international experience, Eliason is certainly a long shot for Atlanta. A controversial rule change instituted last year favors younger competitors like 20-year-old Justin Huish, the reigning national champion, and 18-year-old Rod White.
But Eliason isn't giving up even a shred of hope.
"In archery, it's a mental game," he said, "and I can compete mentally with anyone."
No comeback for Phillips
Kristie Phillips, once considered the successor to Mary Lou Retton as America's top female gymnast, recently competed for the first time since retiring prematurely. Phillips was 16 when she retired after failing to make the 1988 Olympic team.
Now 23, Phillips won both the balance beam and the all-around competition in last month's Reese's International Cup competition in Portland, Ore, an event featuring several ex-Olympians.
Fully recovered from an eating disorder that precipitated her decline and ultimately forced her out of the sport, Phillips has no plans for a comeback. She's an aspiring actress and dancer living in New York.
The chances of the U.S. table tennis team improved recently when Amy Feng, who moved to Wheaton, Md., four years ago from China, became an American citizen Feb. 2. Feng, 26, trains out of Augusta, Ga., and is ranked No. 1 in the country (No. 47 in the world.) . . . Tom Tisell, a bank analyst from St. Paul, Minn., will be trying to qualify for the Olympic marathon next Saturday in Charlotte, N.C. Tisell, 28, holds the distinction of being voted the best athlete at North Fort Myers (Fla.) High School in 1985. Somebody named Deion Sanders finished second. . . . Coming up: U.S. Boxing Championships, Colorado Springs, Colo., tomorrow through Friday. Among those contending is Dana Rucker of Baltimore, the third-ranked middleweight in the country.